Choosing the right counselor, psychiatrist or other mental health professional can be confusing. But when you face a mental health issue, it is important to get appropriate care, because primary care doctors are not trained in diagnosing and treating these problems.

  • Psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (MD) or doctor of osteopathy (DO)—two degrees with virtually the same training (four years of medical school, followed by four additional years of training in psychiatry)-who specializes in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional disorders. Psychiatrists use both medication and counseling. Because of their medical training, they are the only mental health professionals allowed to write drug prescriptions. Before choosing a psychiatrist, check to see if he/she is board-certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Go to the American Board of Medical Specialties Web site at and enter the practitioner's name, or call 866-275-2267.

Strengths: Good medical and psychological diagnosticians who can discover or rule out medical conditions that could be affecting your mental health.

  • Psychologist. These professionals perform psychological testing and practice psychotherapy. Most psychologists hold an advanced degree, such as a doctor of philosophy (PhD) in psychology, a doctor of psychology (PsyD) or doctor of education (EdD) in psychology, all of which require the same minimum amount of schooling. Psychologists are licensed in the state where they practice. Some states also license psychologists holding master's degrees, but a certain level of work experience is required before a license can be granted. To determine if a psychologist is licensed, contact your state's health department.

Strengths: Best trained in a wide range of diagnosed mental health problems that require counseling.

  • Mental health social worker. Social service agencies, hospitals and crisis centers employ mental health social workers, who usually hold a master's degree in social work with an emphasis in psychology. Licensing requirements for social workers vary widely from state to state. Contact your state's health department to find out if a specific practitioner is licensed.

Strengths: Skilled at helping people adjust to a new problem, such as a cancer diagnosis, and find resources and services.

  • Family, marriage or pastoral counselor. These are general terms that are used by psychologists, social workers or even members of the clergy who specialize in particular areas of counseling. Some states require licensing for anyone calling himself/herself a "counselor," although no states require clergy to be licensed in order to offer counseling

Strengths: Good general counselors for less serious mental health problems.

  • Psychiatric nurse. Registered nurses with advanced training in psychiatry are called psychiatric nurses. They are found in general hospitals, psychiatric facilities and some nursing homes. They often administer and monitor medications and facilitate patient therapy sessions.

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